Question: When riding a Training Level test last summer, the judge criticized me for not riding accurately enough. Why are accurate figures so important?
Answer: Good training and riding produce accurate movements that demonstrate the requirements of the test. Minor inaccuracies, such as occasionally cutting a corner, being slightly early or late in a transition or doing a slightly lopsided circle, are not major detractors from scores, especially at the lower levels. However, if these inaccuracies are repeated throughout the test, they will have a negative influence on your marks.
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Error penalties are deducted for more severe inaccuracies, such as turning the wrong direction, transitions at the wrong letter or circles that are clearly the wrong size. The first error is a two-point deduction from the total test score. The second error is four points, and the third causes elimination from the test.
In many cases, an inaccurately ridden movement reduces the difficulty of the exercise. For instance, it is harder for a horse to make a 10-meter circle than a 20-meter circle because the smaller circle requires more bend and collection. If you make a larger-than-required circle in a test, you can receive a deduction for an error or a lower score--for instance, a 5 instead of a 6--for the reduced difficulty.
While the judge can consider the cause of an inaccurate movement when assigning a score, an accurately ridden test will always score higher than an inaccurate one that is otherwise the same quality. When a judge comments to a rider about a lack of accuracy, that judge thinks the rider needs to develop more effective aids or needs better preparation for the movements. For instance, a horse that is sufficiently balanced, supple and reliable on the aids should be able to maintain these qualities on a 20-meter circle and, as a result, the circle should be round.
But when a rider overbends his horse's neck to the inside on a circle, for example, the horse's balance will deteriorate, causing him to lose his hindquarters to the outside or, perhaps, to fall on the inside shoulder. The resulting circle may be egg-shaped, or it may be lopsided if the rider's aids are applied inconsistently during the exercise.
Transitions and other movements and figures that make up a test also require proper preparation and effective aids to be executed accurately. Ideally, a transition should occur when the horse's shoulder reaches the arena letter. A late transition--for example, one that happens a horse length behind or before A but not directly at A--can be caused by a horse that is not listening to the rider's aids.
Normally, preparation for a movement or transition should begin a few meters before the letter. But the degree of preparation is dependent on many variables, including the degree of training of the horse, his normal level of response to the aids, the degree of difficulty of the requirement, overall balance of the horse and, certainly, his level of attention at the moment of preparation.
To improve accuracy, begin your preparation on the ground by studying the score sheet for each test you plan to ride, because the "new" figures at the level are illustrated and "directives" are written for each movement. Often it helps to visualize the test on paper or practice the movements on foot. An understanding of the distances, placement and geometry of the figures is crucial to accurate test riding, and practice on and off the horse can improve a rider's ability to ride accurately. For a more thorough explanation of the requirements and for illustrations of each figure, go to the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) Rule Book.
You also need to practice the test movements and figures in an actual dressage arena at predetermined places in your riding or where you have markers. In closing, let me emphasize that a dressage ride is a partnership between horse and rider. It is the rider's responsibility to demonstrate the results of proper training. The ability to execute proper and accurate figures, transitions and movements is an important measure of his training.
Janine Malone is a USEF "R" dressage and "r" sport horse breeding judge as well as a Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) steward. A longtime show manager, she is secretary of the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) and a member of the USEF Dressage Committee. She owns Rosinburg Farm in Zebulon, N.C., where she breeds Hanoverians.